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Monday, July 28, 2014

GE Embraces Collaborative Approach to AM Development

Final Bracket

A final bracket contest submission from Thomas Johansson. Credit: GrabCAD.

As additive manufacturing (AM) technology continues to develop and find application in industrial solutions, so too does it capture more of the general public’s imagination. The expiration of patents for fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology has allowed companies to develop small, affordable desktop 3D printers, putting additive technologies into the hands of the so-called maker culture, the broad community of tinkerers and DIY-aficionados.

As Tim Shinbara of AMT – The Association for Additive Manufacturing wrote for IMT Machining Journal last month, the divide between the AM maker community and industrial AM applications cannot persist. “Additive manufacturing has an opportunity to reach all ages and backgrounds by incentivizing creativity,” he wrote. “Consensus has been formed about the maker movement’s ability to excite folks from the garage to the classroom.” But how can manufacturers generate excitement about AM in industrial production?

Despite concessions from Shinbara and others in the industry, little has been done to combine the forces of industry with the web of garage tinkerers. Several companies have recently made progress by crowdsourcing AM technology from the maker community through contests.

GE recently announced the ten Phase I finalists as part of its Design Quest competition. The Jet Engine Bracket Design Quest is a competition to entice individual designers, companies, and institutions to develop a method of using AM to produce a lightweight loading bracket GE uses in its jet engines. The brackets support engine weight during handling. An infographic of the existing bracket is below:

Jet Engine Loading Bracket

Credit: GE.

The ten international finalists represent the top tier of a “record number” of design entries for the Design Quest. The competition, which launched in June, involved a collaboration with the GrabCAD open engineering design portal, allowing entrants to easily submit their design concepts.

“The GE Quest has been one our most successful challenges, in terms of number of entrants, technical sophistication of submissions and quality of results”, said Hardi Meybaum, CEO of GrabCAD. “It’s been great watching the community exploit the advantages of additive manufacturing in such a demanding application.”

Each finalist will receive a $1,000 and move on to Phase II of the competition, in which GE will manufacture and test each submission. That phase is scheduled to end on Nov. 15, after which the top eight designs will be announced and a $20,000 prize pool will be divided among the winners. You can see a list of the finalists here.

Earlier this year, GE announced the opening of the Additive Manufacturing Lab, an R&D center in Cincinnati. GE has embraced AM innovation to improve its aviation division, as we reported earlier this year and as Greg Morris, head of strategy and business development for additive technologies at GE Aviation, told IMT Machining Journal at the Rapid 2013 exhibition in Pittsburgh. However, the collaborative element of the Jet Engine Bracket Design Quest is a new step for the company in AM development.

“We have entered into a new era of manufacturing that is leveraging the proven power of open innovation,” said Mark Little, senior vice president and chief technology officer of GE Global Research Center. “Additive manufacturing is allowing GE, together with the maker community, to push the boundaries of traditional engineering. These finalists have demonstrated what can be achieved by embracing this more open, collaborative model.”

While GE is one of the biggest companies to embrace a collaborative model for industry technology development, other companies are taking advantage of the robust community of makers as well.

Stratasys recently announced the Extreme Redesign 3D Printing Challenge, which tasks students in three different categories to improve an existing product via additive techniques. Stratasys, which will award winners with scholarship money, hopes to invigorate interest in CAD design and AM in tinkering students who could enter industry in the future.

Additionally, The MTConnect Institute, which manages the MTConnect standard for machine tool connectivity, has relied heavily on crowdsourcing techniques to invigorate interest in and engender development of technology that boosts MTConnect functionality. The MTConnect Challenge hopes to popularize the standard with new products and applications for hot technology like Google Glass.

Are open innovation, collaborative production, and crowdsourcing keys to the future of machining innovation? Will we see more contests and collaborations between the maker community and industry companies and, further, should we? Tell us in the comments below!

–Brian Lane

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